Whether the setting is a small town, a big city or a seaside refuge, romance has an extra chance to spark and thrive during the holiday season. Characters go home again, or go elsewhere to escape home, but there is no refuge from the potent combination of favorite scents, beloved foods and tender kisses.
★ Duke, Actually
Duke, Actually by Jenny Holiday sparkles with wit and charm. In this modern fairy tale, Dani Martinez decides she is post-men and love-averse as she waits for her divorce to become final. Still, she’s excited about being a member of the wedding party for her best friend, Leo, even if that includes contact with Maximillian von Hansburg, Baron of Laudon and heir to the Duke of Aquilla. The ultra-handsome aristocrat rubs forthright English professor Dani the wrong way . . . until one night, friendship blossoms and they begin to support each other through career and family drama. The dual settings of New York City and Max’s fictional European country of Eldovia add to the fun, but it is the clever banter, smoking love scenes and delightful characters that make this romance like a perfect cup of cocoa—rich, delicious and warming all the way to the heart. Don’t miss it.
★ A Season for Second Chances
Settle in by the sea with Jenny Bayliss’ A Season for Second Chances. When chef Annie Sharpe discovers her husband’s latest affair, she decides to forge a new life. Finances force her to take a position as a winter guardian for Saltwater Nook, a historic residence in the small town of Willow Bay on the coast of England. The small town has a special history, and the community is dedicated to upholding its traditions. Saltwater Nook is important to the people of Willow Bay, and increasingly so to Annie. Her mind spins toward somehow devising a future for the place, despite knowing the property is set to be razed in six months. Then there’s the curmudgeonly nephew of the owner, a man who is brusque and appealing by turns—sparking other fantasies. There’s so much to love about this enchanting story. Readers will want their own seat at the cafe Annie opens and to attend every quirky holiday party the townspeople dream up. This lovely, cozy read is perfect for winter.
The Matzah Ball
Holiday magic clashes with real-life problems and a shared awkward past in The Matzah Ball by Jean Meltzer. Rabbi’s daughter, romance novelist and secret fan of all things Christmas Rachel Rubenstein-Goldblatt reluctantly attends her parents’ Shabbat dinner, despite knowing her childhood archnemesis, Jacob Greenberg, will be at the table this week. He’s in New York City to put on a splashy, high-end event: the Matzah Ball, a Jewish music celebration set to take place on the last night of Hanukkah. Rachel finds herself in dire need of a ticket to the swanky sold-out party, since she’s desperate for inspiration for the Hanukkah-themed romance she’s being paid to pen. There are some amusing rom-com moments involving funny costumes and ballgowns worn with fuzzy socks, but the heart of this story is the central couple’s need to face their pasts and deal with their presents, including Rachel’s daily, very real struggle with chronic fatigue syndrome. Rachel finds a beauty she’s never noticed before in Hanukkah, all while falling in love with Jacob, who proves himself to be a true hero. The Matzah Ball is sweet, kisses-only and highly sigh-worthy.
The Holiday Swap
Twin sisters switch lives and find their matches in The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox. When a concussion causes chef Charlie Goodwin to lose her senses of taste and smell, she fears she might also lose her shot at a bigger and better professional gig. To save the day, her twin, Cass, agrees to take over Charlie’s current job of co-hosting a reality baking show in Los Angeles, while Charlie steps in at the family bakery in the small mountain town of Starlight Peak. Since both identical twins are accomplished bakers, no one will be the wiser. From here, cue rom-com conventions: confused exes, befuddled bosses and inconvenient romantic attractions as their subterfuge does not go as smoothly as Cass and Charlie imagined. Starlight Peak is the perfect snowy setting for Christmas cheer as the plot’s knots untangle and everyone finds their happy ending. Be warned that this kisses-only romance is full of mouthwatering descriptions of cookies, breads and cakes that just might inspire readers to take a turn in their own kitchens.
No Ordinary Christmas
Former high school sweethearts get a do-over in No Ordinary Christmas by Belle Calhoune. Small-town librarian Lucy Marshall vows to keep clear of Dante West, her high school boyfriend and ex-BFF, when the hunky action star returns to Mistletoe, Maine, to film a movie. Given that his looks are a cross between the Rock and Idris Elba, she doesn’t have much luck resisting when Dante asks to talk. He has amends to make with the girl he never forgot and the family he left behind after running off to Hollywood. Perhaps the holiday season will sweeten everyone’s feelings for him. But can good intentions and charming community events create the conditions he needs to finally win Lucy’s heart? While the pair exchange hugs and kisses only, it’s not long before hearts are also engaged in this warm, appealing tale of new understanding and belated forgiveness. The adorable town of Mistletoe is a snow globe-perfect setting in this satisfying holiday romance.